EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view

You could write a book about all that General Motors has done wrong in the last 20 years. In fact, several people have done just that.

But if you wanted to write a book about what the company has done right, Chapter 1 could be titled: The 1995 Buick Riviera.

When GM is bad – the Chevy Vega, the Pontiac Phoenix, the Cadillac Cimmaron – it is awful.

But when GM is good, it can build the best cars in the world.

No other automaker has the economies of scale that GM has. Despite losing a significant chunk of its market share in the last two decades, GM still is the world’s largest automaker. And GM is the only automaker that could build a car as great as the all-new Riviera and price it within reach of those of us who are not blessed with an endless supply of money.

There’s no question that $27,000 and change is a lot of money for a new car. But if you compare the new Riviera with competitive vehicles – such as the Acura Legend Coupe, which starts at $38,000 or the Lexus SC 300 Coupe, which starts even higher – then the Riviera is nothing less than a steal.

Buick set up a road course with traffic cones and obstacles in a large empty parking lot at Walt Disney World last week and let potential customers – and me – drive the new Riviera and rate its performance. Dozens of Buick owners received invitations by mail to participate in this stop of the nationwide Riviera Celebration Tour.

After spending about a half-hour snaking a Riviera through a slalom course and testing the performance of the supercharged V-6 engine, brakes and suspension system, I’ve come to the conclusion that no General Motors division has ever built a better car.

This one doesn’t have pieces from one division and parts from another. Instead the new Riviera is like a vehicle made by a smaller company – many of its parts were specially made for it.

Lexus or Mercedes-Benz comes to mind when you sit in the new Riviera. In terms of quality and quietness, this Buick can be honestly compared with those two brands of cars.

The Riviera’s styling is simply gorgeous. Even the photos of the car don’t do it justice.

When you get close to the car, you see that the harmony of the design is in its details. Each curve and shape blends smoothly into the next.

The doors, hood and trunk close tightly against the body. The paint, which has a wet, glossy look, is simply flawless.

Technically, there’s some real innovation here. A new magnetic-hydraulic speed-sensitive steering system relies on a computer to smooth out the amount of power assistance you feel at the wheel at high and low speeds. It provides just the right amount of assist to enable the driver to steer the new Riviera with ease and with complete confidence.

The four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes are strong and powerful, perhaps the best and most balanced I’ve sampled yet on a GM car.

Buick is not pitching the Riviera as a sports coupe. Instead, they’ve t uned the four-wheel independent suspension to give a soft, luxury-coupe ride. The difference is that the Riviera’s body might lean a bit more in hard cornering and not feel as taught and firm as a sports coupe.

Still, the car handles superbly and can be driven just as hard as you wish. At Disney’s big, empty parking lot, I drove 60 mph or so and pulled many sharp maneuvers and quick turns. I also braked heavily and accelerated hard.

The 225-horsepower supercharged V-6 engine, though powerful, doesn’t give neck-snapping performance. The power is delivered to the front wheels smoothly and with finesse. There’s no trace of torque steer, a pulling to the left or right that is characteristic of many high-powered front-wheel-drive cars. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to tell that the Riviera is a front-wheel drive car.

The four-speed automatic moves up and down through the gears so smoothly that, unless you look at the tachometer, you might not notice when it shift .

Someone at Buick decided that the driver should hear the engine breathing as it winds up – and you do, but ever so slightly.

Floor the accelerator and you can just catch a trace of the supercharger’s hum as it rams air and fuel into the engine.

Road noise was undetectable from inside in the new Riviera. And there weren’t any thumps heard from the suspension system when the car was driven over obstacles that simulated such things as deep potholes or railroad tracks.

Terrific interior

The car’s interior is terrific. The big, stylish gauges give it real personality and character. The numbers are large and easy to read. The controls for the air conditioner and radio are colorfully and cleanly designed and are convenient to operate. Controls for the radio, for instance, are on the steering wheel, which allows you to change stations or adjust the volume without taking your eyes off the road.

Thick, smooth leather covers the seats, which are a bit soft but supremely comfortable.

Getting in and out of the rear seat is a breeze. Rear passengers are likely to be very comfortable because of the excellent head, leg and foot room. And I like how the back window extends over the rear seat so that rear passengers can look up at the sky.

Buick owners who attended the event also were given the chance to drive the Riviera’s competition, such as the Lexus SC 300, the BMW 325is and the Acura Legend Coupe.

A quick scan through the surveys each customer filled out turned up one word time after time: ”great.”

Not everyone liked every part of the Riviera, but overall, the consensus seemed to be that Buick has a real winner.

”It feels like a sports coupe. It’s very fast,” said Brenda Anderson, of Casselberry, after her turn behind the wheel. ”I like the looks, except for the rear, which look too American. For the money, I’d definitely buy the Riviera, but I liked the Lexus. It handles better, but the Buick was more comfortable,” she said.

Connie Beemer of Orlando said she liked the way the new Riviera held the road. ”When you think you are going to skid, you don’t. It is very stable and it corners well,” she said.

”I’m really impressed with the performance. It has so much more room than the Lexus,” said Chuck Pues of Longwood, who is 6-foot-5.

”I’m a little questionable on the dash. I’d have to get used to it. But compared to the competition, the Riviera is a hell of a lot less expensive,” he added.

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